COP27 in Egypt: the archipelago of political and environmental lies

In November, COP27 takes place in Egypt. The event, writes Maria Gloria Polimeno, risks reinforcing the exceptionalism of bio-autocracies as newly legitimated political entities, exposing the cowardice of green capitalism and sustainable neoliberalism. Environmentalism in Egypt is a new form of governmentality, reorganising political power over citizens’ lives, and over nature itself

November's COP27 climate change conference in Sharm El-Sheikh should raise deep concerns about the state of human rights violations in Egypt. The legal organisation of the Egyptian state, which has been gradually rebuilt since 2014, is under sharp scrutiny. Naomi Klein recently wrote that COP27 will be nothing more than a greenwashing attempt by a police state that has turned Egypt into an 'archipelago of prisons'. The most recent of these, in Wadi Natruh, may be the largest prison complex ever built.

Class-oriented decision-making

COP27 should also shine a light on other, less widely reported, issues. In Egypt, state-owned enterprises, including the military, define the very notion of 'nature'. The forms of development they practice are exclusionary, and unsustainable. Such enterprises' conception of the meaning of 'green' is truly myopic.

The Egyptian armed forces' stranglehold on nature, green spaces and development is unscientific and irrational. Its logic is exclusionary and class-oriented. Under the pretext of environmentalism, political elites in Egypt make the key decisions about the environment. But these decisions aim purely at generating new profits for the tourist industry they control.

There is general consensus that COP27 will play a less important role than the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow. But COP27 is loaded with symbolism and myth, bound up with the international community's redefinition of interests, values and priorities in the broader Mediterranean area.

In Egypt, state-owned enterprises define the notion of nature. These enterprises practice exclusionary, unsustainable forms of development

Since 2017, Egypt's political establishment has, through initiatives and programmes including the new administrative capital and current projects on desert lands, promoted a narrative of sustainable development. The regime is delivering its flagship projects under the auspices of a sustainable and green citizenship plan.

Ostensibly, such projects are in line with the government's Social Development Goals and Agenda 2030. But they lack any citizen involvement. In Egypt, citizenship and political subjectivities remain suppressed by state violence. Since 2014 in Egypt, violence has become a legal, routine means for disciplining and quashing any form of resistance, justified by amendments to the country's penal code.

Green elitist politics

The Egyptian idea of environmentalism is at odds with the definition of green politics. As a general norm, environmental politics calls for social responsibility. It requires flexible institutions and practices, participatory democracy, decentralisation, and for political parties to be feminist- and religion-inclusive.

None of this is the case in Egypt under al-Sisi, where civil society remains suppressed, and religious parties legally banned. The Mukhabarat (intelligence services) use the 2013 anti-protest law No.107 to target, persecute, and torture green movements and activists.

Holding the COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh makes plain the structural limitations of green neoliberalism. It sacralises inequality in the distribution of renewable resources and gaps in wealth production. The lower-middle class has scant access to basic services and housing, and Egypt's gross national income per capita is just $US 11,810 – well below the global average of $US 17,591.

Environmentalism and green politics, in Egypt, have become new tools to reorganise political power over human lives and nature in service of global capitalism

Military-owned enterprises control almost 40 development projects under Agenda 2030. The military's approach is at odds with contributions from Egypt's scientific community, which have taken a more cautious approach to environmental politics and climate change. Scholars highlight the diversity of green social movements and the varying approaches to ecology supported by different social classes. However, the debate remains fragmented.

Environmentalism and green politics in Egypt have become new tools to reorganise political power over human lives and nature in service of global capitalism. There is also a connected risk of international legitimation of the status quo. All this raises major concerns about the risk of bio-autocracies developing in the Mediterranean area. The international community is endorsing long-term, exclusionary, unsustainable environmental developmentalism. It is confined by the cowardice of green capitalism and militarism.

The myth of Egypt’s bonanza

The Egyptian authorities insist on celebrating achievements from financial rating agencies like Moody’s, and Fitch. Yet wealth and income in the country remain deeply unequal. In 2021, 1% of Egyptians in the highest income class received 19% of the national income, while 50% of the lower income class received only 17.2%.

In addition, Egyptian authorities plan to green desert lands, raising debate among scientists about the long-term effects and unsustainability of such a practice. Desert dunes, after all, have significant influence on the formation of clouds and storms. The short-term political strategy appears merely to secure farmers' support for a fragile political authority.

By legitimising Egypt through COP27, the international community condones long-term unsustainability, the exclusionary agenda of development, and a new form of green elitism

In Egypt, the political ecology of new job generation is accompanied by old practices of privatisation. Medium term, in the absence of strategies of legitimation, this will undermine Egypt's already precarious economic situation.

It seems the state is trying to lower Cairo's population density by spreading people to suburban areas. New housing complexes next to infrastructural projects support this idea. However, the reality on the ground is, once again, different. The military apparatus manages these new housing developments. Their fate, therefore, seems destined merely to increase tourist-sector profits and the new architecture of power. Buildings that should be homes for ordinary Egyptians become pawns in the game of homo economicus – a symptom of green neoliberalism under autocracy.

Acclaiming bio-autocracies

By supporting COP27 in Egypt, the international community is condoning long-term unsustainability, the exclusionary agenda of development, and a new form of green elitism. It is thoroughly hypocritical. For facilitating such a travesty, we should reserve particular disdain for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Union, and the Green Climate Fund.

COP27 also indirectly enshrines the right for autocrats to reorganise their international power under the guise of environmentalism. It offers autocratic regimes a way to greenwash their authoritarian practices. The implications of COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh will resonate far beyond Egypt.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Maria Gloria Polimeno
Maria Gloria Polimeno
Associate Lecturer in International Relations and Politics, Department of Politics, University of York

Before moving to York, Gloria held teaching, supervising and research positions at the University of Exeter, SOAS, The Queen Mary and Birkbeck College, University of London.

She has also held research positions as a Middle East expert on British Academy and ERC-funded projects.

Gloria holds a PhD in Middle East Politics from the University of Exeter, and is a nominated Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

She tweets @MGloPolimeno

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